In 2004, Oliver Stone released his take on Alexander the Great. Historians and other intelligent people feared what the “JFK” director might do to another historical topic. It turned out “Alexander” was closer in integrity to “Born on the Fourth of July”. I would hate to think that was a reason why “Alexander” was a flop. Perhaps people prefer outrageous raping of history as in “JFK” to bland retelling like in “Alexander”.
The movie opens with a quote from Vergil – “Fortune favors the bold”. However, the movie makes a stronger case that fortune favors the sexually dysfunctional. The movie opens like many a biographical epic by depicting the death of Alexander (Colin Ferrell), thus preventing the terrible shock to the audience if the hero was to die at the end. An old man, Alexander’s friend Ptolemy, narrates from here. We find out that Alexander was the product of squabbling parents. Philip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie) are in lust, but definitely not in love. Poor little Alex. On the plus side, he does have the greatest tutor in history (Aristotle) and the best horse (Bucephalus). After hitting these three points, the movie suddenly jumps to the final battle with the Persians – the Battle of Gaugamela. Ptolemy uses a map to get us there, but neglects to mention that two major battles and a famous siege proceeded Gaugamela.
The Battle of Gaugamela is the big set piece. It is epic in scale as seen literally from an eagle eye’s view. The battle is a mixture of accuracy, inaccuracy, and accurate, but wrong battle. The phalanx (portrayed by 1500 trained Moroccan soldiers) is authentic as are the weapons and equipment. Philip’s scythed chariots are dealt with tactically using the disputed “mousetrap” tactic. The movie shifts from right, center, to left so it can be confusing, especially for a battle that is confusing even for military historians. There is a lot of “fog of war” here, or I should say “dust of war”. Alexander experts will sniff that he did not fight on foot, his life was not saved at this battle by Cleitus (that was Granicus), Alexander does not throw a spear at Darius III, and Darius escaped on a horse instead of a chariot (that was Issus). Still, its an acceptable rendering of a complicated battle.
From this peak the movie grinds to a halt in Babylon with a lengthy discussion between Alexander and his more than BFF Hephaestion (Jared Leto). Hephaestion is less than thrilled when his boyfriend marries a seductress named Roxana. The movie has Roxane working hard to kindle Alexander’s heterosexual urges when the reality was that Alexander was more asexual than anything else and lost interest in Roxane soon after the marriage. She was more of sad lamb than the determined tigress of the film.
At this point, Stone jettisons the linear structure and begins to bounce around hitting some of the greatest hits of Alexander lore. We get hits like: the executions of Philotas and Parmenion, Philip’s wedding banquet, and the killing of Cleitus. All of them are admirably accurate.
This leads up to the other big set piece battle which is not identified but is obviously the Battle of Hydaspes in India. For some reason (probably to contrast with Gaugamela’s dusty plains), Stone stages this in a jungle instead of on open ground along a river. This is not the only dubious decision. The elephant charge on the phalanx is well done. The combat is frenetic and chaotic. Alexander leads the cavalry to the rescue when in reality the elephant-fearing horses had to be rescued by the steady foot soldiers. The cinematography is blood tinged and the action is surrealistic. The climax is Alexander’s duel with an elephant which results in his and Bucephalus being wounded. In reality, Alexander took an arrow during a later siege and he did not agree to return to Babylon because of the close call with death. The movie concludes with Alexander’s death.
The movie did not deserve the critical beating it took. Some of that was probably residual animosity towards the pompous Oliver Stone who is actually pretty restrained here. The task he undertook was daunting. Alexander deserves a mini-series instead of a greatest hits montage. And by the way, who chose to leave out the “Gordian knot” episode? The movie is flawed because of the overemphasis on Alexander’s sexuality, something that would have puzzled Alexander and the Macedonians in general. The screen time given to Roxane and Olympias is overblown as are their depictions. Obviously Stone forced Angelina Jolie into more than was justified (especially considering she stayed clothed).
The all-star cast is a disappointment. Colin Ferrell is not up to the task of portraying one of the most charismatic figures in history. The best comparison would be to Brad Pitt in “Troy”. Pitt was much better in playing a similar personality. Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie are almost stunt casting. The sets (especially the palace in Babylon) are awesome and the costumes match them. The score was forgettable. The action is epic, but there is also a lot of exposition and soap operaish moments.
Cracker? Sorry, no. Alexander is still awaiting a great movie.
Rating - 6/10
POSTER - It does have some of the main characters featured prominently and Ferrell mimics the side profile that Alexander favored. It's a bit busy though and some of the peripherals are unclear. It does refelct the movie fairly well. Grade - B
Roxane dance scene